|Snippets from the Balkans|
Traveling through the Balkans can be a truly hedonistic experience, a sensory feast for the eyes, palate and ears. The beauty of the landscape, beaches, islands, mountains, forests, lakes, rivers is overwhelming. For the sea food lovers, the paradise is right there, because the mix of freshness, sophistication of the preparation and taste of the food is unparalleled. The region has some of the best vines in Europe, and that goes along with good music and singing, which is also a very common part of a local dining experience.
Both Croats and Montenegrins are hospitable people, easy to please and also easy to anger, which tend to go hand in hand. Being open minded is a helpful approach anywhere but in the Balkans it can make the difference between a joyful and a very miserable travel experience.
1) There is an abundance of cold water in Croatia, and in most public establishments like cafes, restaurants, beach showers, washrooms and even homes, one can get it from the faucet in two ways: by either turning on the cold water blue knob, or the hot water red knob. Your choice, same results.
2) Everybody smokes. That includes doctors, health workers, and public servants on duty. It's happening at all times, everywhere, including closed spaces like cars. If you are not a smoker, it can be tough. Asking anybody not to smoke or blow the smoke in your face is considered in poor taste, and impolite. Any interference with the smoking habit or routine can quickly deteriorate the cosy atmosphere of a get-together since the non-smoker is seen as the pretentious and annoying one. There does not seem to be any public awareness of the ravages of smoking, nor any trend or desire to curb it. It would go up in smokes, anyway.
3) Oh yeah… I almost forgot to write about napkins. Napkins are customarily not present on serving tables in restaurants and cafes, nor do they accompany a soft drink or coffee when brought by a waitress, or waiter. Strangely enough, sugar and a small square of chocolate will often be placed on the drink plate, but never a napkin. I found that asking for a napkin can be very irritating to the server in a cafe or restaurant, and if eventually brought, it will be done with visible resentment and even a smirk. It is not very different when having a meal at a local friend's house. You'll get a napkin if you ask for one, but not without a comment suggesting jokingly that you are a spoiled brat with weird western habits.
I successfully solved this minor inconvenience by always carrying napkins with me everywhere and using them as discreetly as possible. Once, just for entertainment purposes I asked a waitress in a café to sell me a napkin and she told me that they simply don't have and don't carry them because there are only drinks being served in the establishment, and not food. I nodded respectfully while wiping from my upper lip, some rich milk foam stuck there from the delicious latte I was drinking.
4) The food and wines are usually very tasty and the portions are rather large when you eat out, so there is seldom any good reason to complain. If you are a regular, or know the owner, or come with local friends it always helps in that the service is better, the servings are bigger and the quality is top. If you are a quiet and low key tourist, all the above attributes diminish, but rarely below "adequate".
On the other hand, if you are a not a quiet and low key tourist, and dare to make negative comments about anything or outright complain, things can get very unpleasant or even dangerous. The concept of "the customer is always right" is totally alien to the catering personnel in the Balkans and the complainer will be usually rudely reprimanded or ignored. I witnessed a scene when a Dutch tourist complained about the wine (may have been too sweet, too warm, not the one ordered, who knows...) and the waiter asked him to stop talking nonsense and with a raised voice said: "This is a very good wine" and left. There was no opportunity for any accommodation, and the bill had to be paid in full. As I found out, no tip was left either but in Croatia tipping is generally very low anyway.
I never believed some of the extremely unsavoury stories I heard about retaliations by scolded cooks and waiters in some restaurants, until I got them first hand from some friends in the catering business. Most common are adding powerful laxatives to the food that would turn you literally into a washroom prisoner next day. Even worse, ceremonial lacing of the food with human bodily fluids, originating from both upper and lower "spouts" is not uncommon punishment for "unruly and nasty" guests.
5) Everybody drinks and drives. Beer is a very popular drink but wine is never missing from lunch or dinner and is an integral part of the meal. I have never seen after meal driving plans interfering with prior drinking, and people don't seem to drink less because of having to drive.
6) Driving habits and style on all roads and for all ages are truly mind boggling everywhere in the Balkans. Driving takes place on sidewalks, on very narrow "pedestrians only" streets, or a couple of inches from people sitting in outdoor cafes. I took these pictures of the horrified diners facing the young king of the sidewalks.
7) When pedestrians are crossing on a green light, most of the drivers show their courtesy by honking like crazy, making you aware that they are coming and letting you decide whether you should stop or run for your life.
8) A particularly hair raising and bone chilling habit on the abundant two lane roads is passing over the annoying cars in front of you and speeding on the oncoming lane, hoping that the bidirectional traffic really goes only one way. Strangely enough, this illusion rarely lasts more than a few seconds before you are ready for a guaranteed deadly head-on collision. The solution to this madness is always given by the cars in the correct lane, which allow you to re-enter it in the last split second before you die. This is not a specifically Balkan habit, but that's where I experienced it many, many times and I do not recommend driving in southern Europe for anyone with even minor incontinence. There are always safer means for traveling around in the Balkans, such as trains, buses or boats. Watching HD videos at home is also good and far cheaper.
9) Croatia has recently joined the European Union, and while a few people make a strong intellectual and political effort to highlight potential advantages possibly in the future, by and large, the general population is quite unhappy about it. All in all the standard of living dropped quite a bit, unemployment is high, prices for food and services are up, and all is blamed on the EU system and restrictions. Even though the Kuna is still the official currency, most major transactions such as real estate, care sales, etc., happen in Euros. Croatia's admission into the EU was contingent upon the implementation of many new rules and regulations, that are totally alien to the unruly and bartering spirit and traditions of the Balkans. One of them that I witnessed, in person, is the new strict regulation of the dispensing and sales of medication in the pharmacies. It's not possible to buy almost any drug over the counter, without a doctor's prescription. While walking in town, we bumped into an old friend, and stopped for a coffee. Uncharacteristically for people who sit down for a drink, our friend was in a rush to go to the pharmacy to pick-up some prescription medication. We went with him to the pharmacy, only to find out that they did not have the medication with the prescribed potency, only the double potency. He did try sheepishly to convince the pharmacist to sell him the one with double potency, with the intent to take only half tablets to match the prescribed dose. What he got, was an unpleasant lecture on the dangers and impropriety of his request, let alone its illegal nature. Unfortunately the doctor who prescribed the medications was no longer available since he was rushing to catch the 2:00 pm boat to the island of Šolta, to go to his cottage. We walked out quite disappointed but also pleasantly surprised at seeing some rule of law, not a common or popular thing in the Balkans. I saw from the side walk another easily recognizable pharmacy green cross sign, just about 20 meters away from the one we just walked out of and challenged my friend to a little statistical game to try exactly the same thing in the next pharmacy. He went for it, and we walked there, only to find out that they too, carried only the double dose version of his much needed medication. The only difference was that the pharmacist praised him for the idea of buying the double dose and taking only half the tablet, as something simple and practical under the circumstances. A win-win, and so much for the "stupid" rule of law.
10) Another highly unpopular EU inspired legal novelty was the concept of paying taxes. Any kind of taxes. The ordinary Croatians deeply loathe paying anything to the government, not so much because they can't be bothered with some boring explanation of fiscal discipline and how governments work, but because they have a deep mistrust of the government and the highly corrupt people that are part of it. In fact Croatians, in that way, are not very different from many other nations and countries. The latest crackdown on tax evasion is the legal requirement that receipts be issued by the service provider, for any kind of service (be it having a drink, a snack, using a beach umbrella, getting a massage or a meal in a restaurant). Moreover, the customer has to keep the receipt and show it upon request to the fiscal inspectors while still on premises. The inspectors are literally swarming the public service places and enforcing the penalties, which are quite severe. Until recently, payment for all those types of services was in cash, with no records of any kind, an open season for tax evasion. The new rules and their enforcement, hurt many small businesses and people are truly afraid of indulging in the old ways.
11) Croatians are fun loving people, and even though they like to squeeze as much profit as they can in small business transactions, their Slavic, laid back nature takes over sometimes in unexpected ways. All the major cities and resorts on the Adriatic coast, caught up surprisingly fast and well with tourist services in demand, such as Segway and Bike rentals and organized tours, and one of my favorites, the sea kayak rentals and trips. I took quite a few in Dubrovnik, the jewel of the Adriatic, and the trips included stopovers by a nice beach cave and touring around the island of Locrum.
Small tasty meals were served during the trip, mostly on the beach in front of the cave. At the end of the trip, the paddlers would be pampered with a nice glass of red wine, and getting a second one with a smile, if requested. I noticed for myself, that a big glass of water or lemon juice quenched my thirst much better than wine, and did not get me high, either. I did not mind getting high, but not then and there. I also found out that there was an unadvertised option to book the trip without the wine, making it 10 % cheaper. I booked my second trip without wine and when I got out of my kayak, the group leader, a nice, tall, well-tanned local fellow whom I raced on and off during the trip, approached me with a big glass of wine. I told him immediately that I booked my trip without the wine but he looked at me like I was some social extraterrestrial, and insisted that I have the wine anyway if I didn't want to offend him
12) After the sea kayaking trip, while walking to my hotel, I was almost run over three times within a half an hour. First by a motorcycle slaloming on the sidewalk and a second time by a truck driving backwards on the sidewalk to get closer to a store he brought supplies for, a third time by a Citroen SUV, whose driver decided to park half way on the side walk, half way on the street, so as to protect his oversized left hand outer mirror from passing cars.
13) People in the Balkans like to talk a lot, mostly to other people. Sometimes to themselves too, long after everybody in the party stopped listening. The "show must go on" and the point has to be made, whether there is one, or not. This is particularly true when going out with friends and drinking is always part of the "fun". When it becomes boring, they easily switch to singing. Chances that all would chime in singing together is very high, and almost guaranteed even if drinks are not being consumed, which is, by the way, very rare.
In all fairness to the Balkan people who like to talk a lot, they equally like to listen a lot. This is particularly true when you decide to answer their questions truthfully. This is really not a difficult task, because one learns that the questions are always the same. They would invariably touch topics like: Do you have a house or an apartment? How big it is?, How many square meters? How big is the backyard? Can you grow your own plants? How about a terrace? What kind of car do you drive? How big is the engine? How much does the car cost in Canada in Euros? How much was the trip to Croatia in Euros, How much money do you make? Is your daughter really married to that guy or just living with him? How often do you go to church? Is your name Canadian or are you Jewish? The questioning time usually tries my patience and that's where the subjects get changed.
14) I think it is fair to say that the Balkan people usually dislike foreigners. Probably at the core of this sentiment is envy, since they are perceived as having a higher standard of living. The "tourist" specimen from the wider spectrum of foreigners is particularly irritating to the local population since they are perceived as indulging in too much sin such as: constantly complaining and bitching about lack of civilization, and driving up prices for both the real estate and tourist accommodation rentals. The distinction between "our people" and foreigners is very clear and strong anywhere that money changes hands. Typically, when friends accompany you to a restaurant, they would say to the waiter that "oni su naši ljudi ", meaning "these are our people". The expectation is that you would get better service and food, larger portions and not be cheated on the bill. Often, if you have a decent mastery of the language, even with a slight accent, the friends would encourage you to "pričaj po naški" meaning "speak our language" to secure better service.
15) If you are a tourist, keeping a low profile with no flashy jewelry or clothing is good, common sense advice, applicable almost anywhere in the world. Still, shabby, cheap clothing will not protect you from beach theft if they see or hear that you are a foreigner. They would steal your pants anyway, not because they are fancy, but because they may have in the pockets valuable documents or money. It happened to me and I had to take a cab back home with just a towel around my wet "Speedo" swimsuit. The friends that took my picture coming out of the sea, did not realize that I would have to go home like that.
Well, not exactly, my shirt was miraculously left on the beach.
16) I am not particularly keen on any kitschy souvenirs, particularly the ones with local Balkan ethnic symbols or artwork, if it's made in China. And most, of course, are. I treated myself with a lovely red Croatian sun hat, in the style of a "Tilley" hat, except that it had a Croatian red and white checkered band all around the brim, and a nice Croatian coat of arms in the front. Little did I know how inappropriate and potentially dangerous such a proud display of national symbols can be. My local friend, told me smilingly but tactfully, that these hats are worn only by tourists, and could make me a target for pickpockets who would spot me from a distance. Still worse, the display of any ethnic symbol be it Croat, Serbian or Bosnian Muslim, could trigger unwanted, negative attention. The psychological wounds and tensions from the war, are still lingering among the population of the Balkans. I listened, and I am glad I did. I feel very safe with it, back home in Canada, where running into someone who has the faintest idea about what it is, is very low. Even if they know, it's unlikely they would want to cause any trouble.
17) Like any small nation, Croats too, need and like heroes. Heroes that put the nation on the map, or keep them on the map. Heroes that trigger the admiration and respect of the foreigners, once they hear about them and understand and remember their role and importance for the nation. Naturally, the highest ranking heroes are the ones who made a great contribution to the progress of the world, and are recognized and praised internationally.
One of these people is Nikola Tesla a real great inventor, a technical genius and visionary, whose achievements are absolutely mind boggling.
Like any genius from a small nation, he needed to work outside his country and get the funding, sponsorship and work environment only available in the USA or other technologically advanced and rich countries. He ended up getting everything necessary to bring his brilliant projects to fruition and advance some of his most spectacular and controversial science-fiction dreams. He worked closely with another great inventor, Thomas Alva Edison, who happened to be an excellent businessman as well, which Nikola Tesla was not. Arguably, some of Nicola's inventions were appropriated by Edison, who become very rich, on top of being famous. Tesla, less fortunate financially towards the end of his life, stayed nevertheless famous, and maintained an aura of mystery about his life and an enormous fascination with his inventions.
A small museum was built in his memory, in the very picturesque village of Smiljan, his birthplace in today's Croatia. The museum is rather modest, due to grossly inadequate funding, mostly foreign. A nonstop projection of a documentary about Tesla's life and work uses antiquated equipment with granular images and poor sound, which is a real embarrassment. On the flip side, there is a powerful feeling of his ghostly presence everywhere, inspiring awe and humility in the brain of the regular visitor, if patient enough to read the graphic wall panels documenting his life and work. One original exhibit is a chest of fine Plexiglas drawers with Tesla's brilliant thoughts, famous words, vision on life, future and so on, all etched bilingually into the panels. One can pull the drawers, one at a time and delight in the extraordinary wisdom and brilliance of his words.
The only "problem" is that Nikola Tesla was the son of a Serbian Christian Orthodox Priest, and the lovely little church where he preached, is still on the property, along with the museum, the house and the horse stables.
Today's Serbia considers Tesla as one of "theirs", and for complex political, economical, and touristic reasons, this creates friction and some strange consequences.
I bought a wooden key chain with the young, handsome Tesla's face on it but could not get a "T shirt" for reasons that I naively believed to be "out of stock".
I was lucky enough to have an enlightening chat with a young student girl working in the Souvenir Shop, who explained to me, that they simply don't carry "T shirts" or any similar wearable memorabilia, because they might cause irritation within the local Croatian population, who still hold indiscriminate nationalistic views and do not want to promote the image of someone who is famous, born there but not considered "one of them". And that was that.
18) Montenegro, a former Yugoslavian region, now an independent country that adopted the € immediately after joining the EU, has become known for a rapidly and smartly growing tourist industry that can rely a lot on word of mouth, rather than fancy brochures and commercial advertising. This is, of course, helped by a very high concentration of breathtaking beauty, just about everywhere you go and look, all on a relatively small territory. For a budget-conscious visitor, the low cost of almost everything, such as of decent private accommodation close to the beach for 20 €, or a little bit further inland for 10€ is a major plus, compared to the pricier neighboring Croatia. I took the picture of a street advertisement and even visited the place. Very decent, simple but clean and comfortable. The price was real but the German model Gisele Bündchen was not included, as it turned out, in this shameless scheme of false advertising. Yes, Montenegro has lots of bargains and the only regional challenge is Albania, still underdeveloped, but slowly catching up.
It is amazing what a huge difference little things can make. The use of beach toilets and showers is free, unlike in Croatia, where they still charge you small change or sell you tokens, a real turn-off nuisance. The most praised bonus though, is the free parking in the beach parking lots. As a result, people park there and will very likely spend on food, at the nearby restaurants and food kiosks. Otherwise, they would just drive far enough, outside the paying zone, and eat their sandwiches, drink water from the bottles in the car and relieve themselves for free in the bushes or in the sea. Basic applied human psychology on minor bribing in exchange for major benefits does its magic.
It reminded me of the Canadian style "bribing", where in exchange for fat, sugary doughnuts and diluted coffee in paper cups, one can get crowds of people to shop in a store, or even worse, get the votes in any political election. In this apparently smart approach in attracting the tourist population, one can find some aberrations that can only be explained by greed, stupidity or both. In most supermarkets or even in small road-side food kiosks, one can buy a 1.5 l of bottled water for 0.50 €. One notable exception is the food kiosk by the main bus station where hordes of tourists descend to visit the Sveti Stefan Island.
This is a major attraction and visiting opportunities are scarce, since the actual island is very often closed to the general public for trivial reasons such a Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie's wedding or a birthday party for a Saudi prince, where oil is being served as an appetizer.
Going back to the bottled water, it was sold, or in my case offered for sale for "only" 7€. That was for a 0.5 l bottle. This is only 42 times more expensive than the price charged about 200 m further down the road. I would say the "greed" goes to the vendor, the "stupidity" to the customer.
I fretted over the business model of that deal until I finally got it. The "victims", first time visitors, were coming in organized tours, where free water was included, and the ones that run out of it and were thirsty, just dished out the money, not even bothering to ask the price, and quickly pocketed the change, not even bothering to count it. I witnessed that, and in a very uncharacteristic gesture, I crossed myself, with the eyes skywards.
Another aberration that I could not explain was the admission fees to the two symmetrical beaches on each side of the walking path leading to the island of Sveti Stefan.
The one on the south side charged 50 € admission, the other on the north side, was free and equally stunning. The free one, is below.
19) In Montenegro, buying merchandise in cash, very often gives you a 40% discount over buying the same thing with a credit card. Hard to believe, but it's true.
20) There are other unique things in the republic of Crna Gora or Montenegro, (both mean Black Mountain). For a number of reasons (geographical proximity, religious compatibility, strong business and practical sense, economical interests and promiscuity, Montenegro found itself a haven for the mob. Foreign, mainly Russian money laundering, shady business transactions, real estate fraud, luxury car fraudulent dealings, and many other illegal activities, are kept below the radar or done in complicity with corrupt authorities.
One aspect that is very visible to the public is the very high end real estate, in the form of upscale beach front condos, gigantic luxury mansions and estates, some completed and inhabited, others half built and abandoned, and a large amount of all those for sale. Sometimes, the prices are shockingly and dubiously low, priced for very quick sale. Not surprisingly, many qualified buyers are shying away from the suspiciously attractive deals because of uncertainty of the real estate legalities, such as the owner’s real identity, undisclosed liens, title, security, stability and safety of the new ownership after the transaction is completed. Too many stories of laundered money, running out of money, crime associated with ownership changing hands, have discouraged people from going for the "bargain". Equally, the abundance of luxury yachts in the harbors and luxury cars in front of the estates is known to be associated with proceeds of crime.
Strangely enough, some of the roads leading to the super luxury mountain side retreats, are dangerously neglected and in a state of total disrepair. Hard to say whether this is for discouraging visitors or because of prematurely running out of the laundered money. There is even a village for Russian "business people" called Царское Село" or the Tsar's village, the big sign at the gates being in Russian, and so is everything else in that compound.
21) Traditionally, the price of gasoline in Europe used to be about double the price in Canada. Many cars in the Balkans and elsewhere in Europe, are now converted to an interchangeable dual fuel system (standard gasoline and LNG, liquefied natural gas). The LNG costs about half the price of the regular gasoline and thus is cheaper than in Canada and even USA.
22) The billing system in restaurants and cafes in the Balkans, is quite different from what we are used to in North America. The waiter would bring a bill for each and every new item ordered, and place it under the ubiquitous ashtray on every table. At the end of a meal, one can easily accumulate ten to twelve bills. When it comes to paying, the person who picks-up the tab, may need to engage into a strenuous mental addition exercise, and will get an approximate idea of the total cost. After that, the waiter would do the same, usually much faster and let you know how much it is. Unless there is a major discrepancy, the customer would pay, as told.
It is very unusual to share the bill, usually it is paid by one person, unless the bill is very high. It is assumed that the people around the table will take turns, over time, but in reality this only happens with closely knit groups that go out frequently, together. None of the "fumbling" with chipping in for your share, like in North America.
23)Eating out offers great opportunities for both mind boggling frustration and fun. My wife and I are great octopus salad lovers, and we found that Croatians are true experts in preparing and serving this delicious dish. After we tasted this salad at least 30 times in about 15 different restaurants and also homemade at friends’ homes, we got a very good idea about the taste, portion size, octopus content and fair price for such a treat. One night we discovered a nice eatery that we've never been before, right in the center of town, in Split. We looked around, inside and liked the atmosphere, setting, creative decor and the faces of the polite but fast moving waiters. We were quickly seated by a well-mannered host and soon thereafter a young, handsome and tall waiter come to take the order. We noticed on the menu that the Octopus Salad was pricier than we were used to, but we assumed that either the size or a fancier recipe would justify that.
We ordered one and soon our waiter brought us a plate with a nice red mound of diced tomatoes. I looked in disbelief, than took a fork and started gently poking through the tomatoes, until I isolated all five gloriously small pieces of octopus in that large mass of diced tomatoes. We were in good mood and decided to turn our complaint in a disguised entertainment show. I called the waiter to our table and asked him politely, with a simulated curiosity "why do they call in this restaurant a tomato salad, an octopus salad?" The waiter appeared to be puzzled and said: "But this is an octopus salad". I continued with "So why did the octopus run away? Can you catch it and bring it back?" "Sorry Sir" he said, "but this is how the cook makes it, I just bring the food". "And you are sure you haven't spilled the octopus from the salad on your way from the kitchen to our table?" I added. He was all red in his face then turned his head slightly, looking down at the floor toward the kitchen as if checking for bits of lost octopus.
I said, "We had many octopus salads in town, but all of them had more than triple this amount of octopus in them ".
He left and returned again, humble and embarrassed, and asked me what I really wanted him to do. I said: "Nothing really, just tell me honestly why is so little octopus in your salad?" He pondered my question and said: "Because octopus is really expensive".
I wasn't able to stop laughing really loud, and I found his candid opinion hysterically funny.
I added: "But you price it much higher than anybody else in town, and for sure this is not for the extra tomatoes". He looked at me speechless with a truly sheepish grin, and I felt almost sorry for him. I said "that's fine" and he left. We enjoyed a great meal with many tasty dishes, and frankly, even the tomatoes were very delicious.
When the waiter brought the bill, I noticed that they had not charged for the "Octopus Salad. I said "I don't see the charge for the "Tomato Salad", is this right?"
"Yes Sir, this is right" he said. I left him a nice tip and continued enjoying the night thinking how easily this "friendly" dialogue could have ended with a broken head (mine, of course) or peacefully , as it did. One never knows.
24) I noticed that in Croatia, the general lack of enthusiasm for the complicated "rule of law" makes life easier and simpler for everybody, including of course, the honest people too, who suffer elsewhere because of the "bad apples".
Many bicycle rental places embrace the "honours system" and rent bicycles with no ID, and no deposits. They just write down by hand whatever first name you tell them, and the time of rental. No particular identifiers on the bikes either, such as colors, logos, plates etc., just a small adhesive sticker with the name of the rental outlet for the renter to remember where to bring it back.
I was really intrigued by the risks of running this business so laxly and had a chat with the owner on Marjan, a beautiful and very large recreational area on a big hill in Split. The owner told me that in the last 10 years, he lost only three bicycles to what might have been theft, but more likely abandonment by exhausted novice bikers, who took the bus...He was renting about 150 bikes a day. No need to harass customers and give himself more paperwork or headaches. I found that quite incredible, but very likely it was true.
25) Equally intriguing was the rental business for kayaks. No ID or deposit there either, because stealing a kayak was even more elaborate work than stealing a bicycle. Here the mindboggling aspect for me was the safety. Life jackets, while available, were totally optional, and if the novice and ignorant renter found that the life jacket was either too hot or too inconvenient or both, he was allowed to venture in the sea without one. No discount though for "no jacket" :-)
26) Beach life in the Balkans is an absolutely essential part of the hedonistic delights in that part of the world, blessed with long summers and mild winters. While sun tanning, walking on the beach, eating, drinking and playing sports or games is very common, swimming in the sea tops it all. The Dalmatian coast is one of the cleanest in the world, with deep blue transparent water and mostly calm sea, protected by many beautiful islands while the presence of the hordes of tourists literally invading the beaches of the Dalmatian coast in the summer is routine and expected, the local population is equally present and active on the beaches. After a typical work day, many people would head to the beaches straight from work and enjoy their time till dusk.
In time, people, be it tourists or locals learn the hard way that the beach life is far from just recreation. It also includes intense "business" activities for petty thieves, pickpockets and various schemers and crooks.
Those people are very creative, and always ahead of the last year's learning.
This summer, shoe and purse theft was conducted with new methods. Typically, a very cute looking and friendly girl aged 5, would approach a sunbathing couple and sweet-talk the woman into allowing her to try on and walk in her city shoes, particularly if they looked expensive. Most people carried to the beach both beach sandals and better shoes for going to the city, after the beach. Usually it was the man in the couple who got all excited about the prospect of having fun by watching the little girl walking in the sand with his partner's grossly oversized shoes. The unsuspecting woman would agree most of the time, particularly with the man's support. The little girl would walk briefly until the repetitive fun would lose both appeal and focus, then quickly take them off and run away with the shoes, surprisingly fast and far, where her mother and coach would take over the loot.
An even more sinister scheme was practiced, when the woman's purse was stolen while all attention was focused on the "funny" girl walking with the funny big shoes. Usually in this scheme, the shoes would be returned, but by then the third party accomplice would be far away with the stolen purse.
27) Not unlike the beach life, the open fruit and vegetable market has its own peculiarities with ample manipulation opportunities. If one stares with appetite at a huge water melon in the fruit market, before even asking about the price, the vendor will cut a pyramid shaped wedge from the middle of the melon and serve the bright red taster off the tip of his sharp knife. Usually the wedge tastes sweet and juicy, and this along with the custom cutting the melon "for the customer only", leads invariably to two things: a) "melon sold" and b) melon overpriced. Again, for "that customer only".
28) As often in life, timing is everything and this is particularly true in the open food market. If one happens to be there around closing time in the afternoon, one will be harassed by all vendors to buy anything and everything, for a small fraction of the morning price. If one voluntarily buys some fruit or vegetables, they'll top it up with what's left on the counter for an extra small token cost.
The reason is simple. It is too much of a hassle to carry any produce back home, sometimes quite far away from the city. I verified this technique, by trying to return the "top-up" produce, with the excuse that it was too much to carry, and not wanting to pay the token extra cost either. Every time with no exception, the farmer vendor refused to take back anything, and did not care much about not being paid extra either.
29) Most of the food on the open market is fresh and tasty. Still lots of sensitive fruits and vegetables are chemically sprayed and treated against bugs and various pests. There is a wide spread myth, particularly among agriculturally ignorant foreigners that in the Balkans, on the open market, everything is 100% organic. The fresh taste and natural aromas of most of the fruits and vegetables helps perpetuate that myth.
I was looking at some heavenly large and beautiful peaches, when an English tourist couple addressed me with a comment like "We buy these peaches every day, they are 100 % organic and taste great". I nodded politely in acknowledgement then I asked the vendor in Croatian if the peaches were organic and non-sprayed. He replied quickly that it was impossible not to spray the peaches, because they would be damaged by bugs and look ugly and unappetising in no time, so he, whomever tells me otherwise, is a crook.
I thanked him for his honesty, and while I bought some peaches from him, I also asked why those English people were talking nonsense. He said that he tried to explain the truth, but that his English was as bad as those people's Croatian, and since I bought the fruits from him, it did not really matter, anyway.
30) Once again, documenting myself for the trip to the Balkans, paid off, as it did for any trip, anywhere. Croatia is a relatively small country but has an exceptional variety of natural attractions. While the regular tourists are visiting Croatia mostly for its beaches, there is much more to the country. The mountains and lakes are equally spectacular and one can get a good sense of these treasures of wild and pristine beauty by visiting the National Parks such as Krka, Paklenica, Plitvicke Jezera, Velebit, Mljet and others. A major problem for the visitors who did not do any prior home work is that they may miss out on full enjoyment since most of the parks are poorly equipped with detailed brochures at the Visitors Centre even in full season.
Complementing this deficiency, the personnel are often rude or not very knowledgeable.
The marking of the trails and the signs for reaching some top attractions may be confusing for the inexperienced hiker. Fortunately, even if you get lost, it's still beautiful. On longer trails, there is nobody to whom to ask questions, and conversely, nobody to bother you for breaking the code of behaviour or the rules of the parks. Some people are happy with that but since most of the visitors are true nature lovers, major troubles are rare.
31) A surprising outcome of this nonchalant and, at times, irresponsible "live and let live" principle is the total absence of "life guards" on public beaches. Hard to tell how much is cost saving and how much is life philosophy supporting.
32) The Balkan Paradox could be described and defined in many ways because it has so many facets. One is the very high youth unemployment versus the perception of a comfortable, fun filled and relaxed projected image of this category. The Balkan youth, particularly in Croatia, fills the streets, bars, clubs and restaurants at all times. This young unemployed generation looks healthy, fit, physically attractive and very well dressed in modern fashionable and often expensive clothing. The girls enhance their image with impeccable makeup.
Granted, the lack of gainful employment creates lots of free, available time, and yes, the consumption of food and drinks may be kept low and inexpensive in many entertainment establishments, and yes, some of the flashy and really expensive clothing may be obtained by morally questionable means, but still, it can't be the case for everybody, and as such it remains a paradox.
I found that most cities and even villages have a main square, or a main street designed for people watching. Places like the "Stradun" in Dubrovnik, or the "Riva" in Split are notoriously attractive and well designed with chic boutiques and outdoor cafes everywhere. They also serve as the socializing heart of the town where the locals would meet or see most of their friends, if the hang around long enough. There is a well-established routine for the dynamics of the place. People who want to meet friends, usually sit and drink at a table, and carefully watch the passersby.
People who don't really want to meet anybody, and use the venue as a true high fashion "catwalk" to turn heads, be admired, photographed, or followed, walk fast enough not to be stopped but slow enough to be duly noticed. Those people are mostly young very attractive women, or jewelry overloaded older women or very flamboyantly dressed gay men. The one common behavioral characteristic they all share is holding their heads high and pretending not to see anybody.
In the summer, the cities and resorts, particularly the ones along the Dalmatian Coast are bustling with colorful street life, entertainment of all kind, arts, music festivals and also folklore and history inspired pageantry. The Roman Emperor Diocletian's festival in Split is one of the most interesting.
During the summer, one will find on the streets and historic squares or "piazzas", many talented musicians and bands, mostly local but some from abroad, too. They would play often during the day but especially during the evenings, when people of all ages and walks of life would listen and spontaneously engage in dancing, with abandon.
33) On my trips throughout Croatia, I visited Poreč, the jewel of Istria, a truly unique place. It's built on a scenic peninsula, with a hilltop church, winding narrow cobblestone streets lined with art galleries and exhibitions. and a
A Salvador Dali exhibition was open at that time.
High end artisanal souvenir shops, boutique style fashion shops, small cafes, restaurants and fairy tale, small villas with dense bright flower growths on the picturesque balconies all added to the town's unique charm. The seaside walk and promenade is long, wide and offers great views of the neighboring small islands, where one can visit and reach by boat, through many organized, inexpensive trips.
On this walk I entered a nice main street fashion boutique where I was greeted by a smiling pretty girl who asked me in Croatian, how she could help me. She spoke with a really thick Russian accent that I found very amusing. Since I did not plan to do any shopping I quickly turned to investigative communication, and I got her full cooperation, since I spoke to her in Russian.
I was more curious about how she got to work there than poking through high fashion rags.
I found out that she was Russian from Ukraine, worked for a minimal wage, lived outside town with five other girls in a two bedroom old apartment and had one day off in a month. Most important, she loved the place both inside and outside, because the boutique was chic, the customers nice and rich, the surroundings heavenly, and the night life excellent. She looked genuinely happy and was dressed like a model. I asked her how she got along with the other roommates and if her earnings were enough to enjoy the life, particularly the night life.
She sized me up with a piercing look, then said with a seductive smile: " I don't see my roommates too much, nor do I have many expenses. I am invited all the time for dinners on the nice yachts in the harbor and I am getting breakfast there too, before going to work. I successfully refrained from the spontaneous idiotic urge to ask sarcastically about the yacht program between dinner and breakfast. Instead, I asked about local competition. What about young Croatian girls who need jobs?
She said: "I have many local Croatian, unemployed friends and that's how I keep improving my Croatian. Most of them don't really want to work, they complain that the jobs in the stores are much too poorly paid”. "So how do they get by?" I asked. She replied "I really don't know and I don't ask, but I meet many of them at dinner, on the yachts..." I thanked her and left. I stopped at three more boutiques, and said "Good Day" in Russian, and all the store keepers greeted me back in perfect Russian, no Croatian accents...
34) Almost anywhere you walk on the streets of the towns, cities and villages in the Balkans, you see colorful laundry hanging to dry on racks outside the windows, or on long ropes, stretched between buildings, sometimes even crossing the streets. They use a simple system of pulleys to stretch and retrieve the laundry. The combination of warm climate, small apartments and low budgets explain the lack of electric dryers in most places. I saw however, intimate lingerie hanging above gorgeous and aromatic flowers, and I'm sure no dryer freshener sheets sold in the North American stores would be able to compete.
35) When I finally returned home to Canada, on my flight back to Toronto, I indulged in day dreaming about my trip to the Balkans. I was overwhelmed by the richness, depth and intensity of my memories and instead of reading or watching a movie on the flight, I closed my eyes for maybe half a minute at a time, and made a note of the images that popped-up in my brain. There were coming in waves and in a certain sequence and I wish they would have been projected on a screen for people to see and enjoy.
One of these bursts of images was about people. Genuine, simple, modest, honest and dignified people, mostly poor. I always bought something from them because I enjoyed the positive change in their expressions.
I also got flashbacks about some other interesting characters, in an unexpected setting such as this lonely nun, sipping a coffee in a totally empty cafe. Maybe she did not want to sit outside.
In contrast with her, this young, pretty woman with a shaven head, wanted to sit outside. She was smoking and looked mildly wasted but when she saw me taking a picture, asked me what I was seeing worth taking a picture of. I said "I have never seen a sign No Peeing for Dogs and I was wondering if dogs could read and understand that sign”. She turned her head slowly and lazily towards her red bicycle and saw the sign. Then, with a broad smile she said: "You know, I live here and never noticed or paid attention to that sign; very strange". I tried to help her by saying "Maybe because you obstruct the sign with your bicycle". She gave me another friendly but unfocused look and inhaled more smoke deeply from her cigarette which I realized was not ordinary tobacco.
Then I got another flashback about "The Lady in White". On that picturesque cobblestoned street, everybody in the café sat with their backs to the Lady in White.
For me this was a metaphor of people's indifference. The old lady was walking very slowly and visibly with excruciating pain, yet her upright body posture and all white clothing gave her a lot of dignity. These are those moments when we realize the frailty of human health and hope that the ravages of time will be generously delayed for us.
After I took the picture, I felt somewhat embarrassed at the thought that the woman may turn her head and see me. I approached her gently and asked if I can help carry her bag. She looked at me with sad eyes and said " No, thank you, unless you can do it every day"
A fairly common scene in the Balkans is seeing people sitting on a chair next to a table, in front of their house, relaxing and indulging in Rakija, (a local hard liquor), kobasica (spicy sausage) kruh (bread) and luk or kapula (onions).
If you stop, or look and talk, there is no way of getting out of sharing. The people of the Balkans are very hospitable, and depending on where it is and who is "relaxing" the meals can be quite rich and plentiful or very simple and basic, like the one in the picture.
As I was walking by, I saw this picture perfect cliché-fitting scene, and since I was facing the man, I had to ask him for permission to take his picture.
I was quite curious to see what his reaction would be, because in other parts of the world such as Mexico, Cuba, Dominican Republic or North Africa I was always asked to pay for such favours.
That Balkan man had no intentions to ask for money, and possibly it did not even cross his mind to do so. Instead, he insisted to drink Rakija with him, which I gladly did.
36) As powerful as the visual memories are, the "sound memories" are not far behind, particularly from the Balkans where music is everywhere, and people's emotions, souls and hearts often connect through songs.
The diversity of the Balkan music is quite impressive. It is quite common for ordinary people even the ones with little or no musical education to belong to a "Klapa" band, a unique and very melodious choral group singing folk music.
Klapas perform anywhere from streets to formal concert halls. Classical music is equally popular and Croats are enthusiast concert goers. Pop, rock and jazz is extremely popular as well, and one would find an abundance of world class bands in each category.
37) During my flight back to Canada, as my memories were unfolding I fell asleep and dreamt about my most spectacular but also the scariest time of my trip. That was the night driving, through the dramatic mountains of Montenegro, downhill to the Bay of Kotor.
The Balkans remain unique in many ways. Historically, their people are hardened survivors of very tough times and extremely resourceful in beating unfavorable odds and sheer bad luck. Most of the people I met, are very proud of who they are and are deeply patriotic. It also happens that the Croats, for example, relative to the size of the population, are disproportionately talented and successful in many sports and are fierce and enthusiastic fans of their athletic heroes.
In many parts of my discovery trips through the Balkans, I was accompanied by a good friend, Ivan K. a retired navy captain and a "walking encyclopedia" from the former Yugoslavia, who decided to switch to being a "driving encyclopedia" in his old reliable Volvo. He opened my eyes and led me to places not known to or encountered by the ordinary tourists. His vast knowledge of history, geography and politics, greatly enhanced my traveling experience and my enjoyment of the trips. Thank you "Kapetan".
by George Kun 11/19/2014